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Otakon 2010 Impressions

By Josh Sisk | Posted 8/4/2010

If you are anything like me, you know a little bit about Otakon. Maybe you drive by it each year and are baffled by all the costumes—some odd and outlandish (an infinite variety of costumes inspired by Japanese manga and anime), others very familiar (Captain Jack Sparrow, anyone?) Perhaps you have even managed to walk in and wander amongst all the otaku and be dazzled by it all. Either way, you probably don't really -know- much about it. This year, I had the chance to go to the con for several hours over the weekend, take photos, absorb it all and try to make some sense of it.

The most important, or most obvious, element of it is the cosplay (costume play). People dress up as their favorite characters. Then other people take their picture. Repeated ad infinitum. One young man, dressed head to toe in a features-obscuring leotard told me he had been photographed more than 7,000 times over the weekend, and I believed him. I was taking his picture at the time.

While you might think that it's strange for a person to spend months designing these costumes—the majority are homemade—the cosplayers themselves seemed somewhat normal, and their desire to show off the end result of all their hard work, natural. I question some of their choices, though. Over the course of the weekend I ran into half a dozen people dressed as "Pedobear" a . . . pedophile bear. Pedobear was originated by the users of the web site 4chan as a graphic designed to mock posters who were perceived as having to great an interest in photos of young people. Somehow along the way, he became a full-fledged phenomenon of his own.

The idea of spending a weekend with strangers dressed as your favorite pop culture character seems a lot less weird once you are there, surrounded by tens of thousands of them. Sure, the outfits are out of the ordinary, but is it really that different than being at a craft fair or art show, once you get past the pedophile bears and the like?

Well, it is somewhat different. The entire affair has a really strange, voyeuristic, exhibitionistic element. The strangest part of this—to an outsider at least—is the photo collectors. A large subset of attendees—not media people—seem to be there just take photos of other attendees. They art direct cosplayers and make them sit this way or that. They gather people from the same source material and have them pose together. They are so persistent that the cosplayers themselves—who seem to be in good humor about it, but only up to a point—seem to have developed a code of etiquette to deal with the photographers... they pose for awhile but once it goes too long, they start counting down and once they hit zero, they break pose with a loud clap or yell.

You would imagine that the photographer would generally reserve this for the people with the best ot most outlandish costumes, but I saw many people whose costume seemed to consist only of a wig get their picture taken over and over again. Of course, women seem to get their picture taken more—much, much more—as most of these picture collectors seemed to be middle-aged dudes. The fact that I was also there to take pictures probably colored my impression of it all, but it just seemed very awkward/borderline to me.

Speaking of borderline, for an event that I took to be fairly family-friendly, there was a lot of edgy humor. The aforementioned Pedobears, not to mention shirts on display with such gems as "Hentai—because cartoons can't say no." (Hentai is a type of pornographic cartoon). The absolute nadir was a young man whose costume incorporated the phrase "It's Rape Time." It stood out to me because it was juxtaposed against the squeeky clean-though-strange stuff.

There was also an unabashed commercial urge—the dealer's room was slammed every time I went near it, an unrelenting press of humanity. I had trouble even getting close to it at first, due to a constant stream of people exiting, their purchases clutched to them. This took me by suprise, as I would assume in the Internet age, people would buy all this stuff online... but it seemed to be a big focus.

The two main nights were capped by a dance that filled up several rooms of the convention center. It was described to me as a dance but after I cut a line (thanks City Paper!) that had to be at least a thousand people long, I discovered it was really an honest-to-goodness rave—complete with an incalculable amount of glow-sticks, glow-glasses, strobe-swords, laser-wands, and air so steamy that the windows were covered in condensation. Sadly, most of the costumes were gone by this point, It must be too hard to dance when equipped with 4-foot wings. This was, perhaps ironically, the part of the convention that seemed to be the most normal to me. Raving 'til dawn is the same everywhere, I guess.

All in all, I spent several hours on Friday, Saturday, and a few on Sunday trying to just immerse myself in Otakon, but most of it is still a mystery. There were many aspects that I didn't even attempt to go to due to large lines or photo restrictions or a simple lack of knowledge of the subject matter—workshops, panel discussions, film screenings and more. But honestly, I think to really get a handle on an event like this, you would have to have much more (sub)cultural perspective than what one would hope to gain in just a single (tourist) weekend. I don't know if I'm up for a second attempt, we'll see next year.

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